The Anatomy of a Data Function – Part II

Part I Part II Part III

Sepia's Anatomy

This is the second part of my review of the anatomy of a Data Function, the artfully named Part I may be viewed here. As seems to happen all too often to me, this series will now extend to having a Part III, which will be published in coming weeks.

In the first article, I introduced the following Data Function organogram:

The Anatomy of a Data Function

Larger PDF version (opens in a new tab)

and went on to cover each of Data Strategy, Analytics & Insight and Data Operations & Technology. In Part II, I will consider the two remaining Data Function areas of Data Architecture and Data Management. Covering Related Areas, and presenting some thoughts on how to go about setting up a Data Function and the pitfalls to be faced along the way, will together form the third and final part of this trilogy.

As in Part I, unless otherwise stated, text indented as a quotation is excerpted from the Data and Analytics Dictionary.
Data Architecture

Data Architecture

To be somewhat self-referential, this area acts a a cornerstone for the rest of the Data Function. While sometimes non-Data architects can seem to inhabit a loftier plane than most mere mortals, Data Architects (who definitively must be part of the Data Function and none of the Business, Enterprise or Solutions Architecture groups) tend to be more practical sorts with actual hands-on technical skills. Perhaps instead of the title “Architect”, “Structural Engineer” would be more appropriate. When a Data Architect draws a diagram with connected boxes, he or she generally understands how the connections work and could probably take a fair stab at implementing the linkages themselves. The other denizens of this area, such as Data Business Analysts, are also essentially pragmatic people, focused on real business outcomes. Data Architecture is a non-theoretical discipline and here I present some of the real-world activities that its members are often engaged in.

Change Portfolio Engagement

One of the most important services that a good Data Function can perform is to act as a moderator for the otherwise deleterious impact that uncontrolled (and uncoordinated) Change portfolios can have on even the best of data landscapes [1]. As I mention in another article:

Over the last decade or so, the delivery of technological change has evolved to the point where many streams of parallel work are run independently of each other with each receiving very close management scrutiny in order to ensure delivery on-time and on-budget. It should be recognised that some of this shift in modus operandi has been as a result of IT departments running projects that have spiralled out of control, or where delivery has been significantly delayed or compromised. The gimlet-like focus of Change on delivery “come Hell or High-water” represents the pendulum swinging to the other extreme.

What this shift in approach means in practice is that – as is often the case – when things go wrong or take longer than anticipated, areas of work are de-scoped to secure delivery dates. In my experience, 9 times out of 10 one of the things that gets thrown out is data-related work; be that not bothering to develop reporting on top of new systems, not integrating new data into existing repositories, not complying with data standards, or not implementing master data management.

As well as the danger of skipping necessary data related work, if some data-related work is actually undertaken, then corners may be cut to meet deadlines and budgets. It is not atypical for instance that a Change Programme, while adding their new capabilities to interfaces or ETL, compromises or overwrites existing functionality. This can mean that data-centric code is in a worse state after a Change Programme than before. My roadworks anecdote begins to feel all too apt a metaphor to employ.

Looking more broadly at Change Programmes, even without the curse of de-scopes, their focus is seldom data and the expertise of Change staff is not often in data matters. Because of this, such work can indeed seem to be analogous to continually digging up the same stretch of road for different purposes, combined with patching things up again in a manner that can sometimes be barely adequate. Extending our metaphor, the result of Change that is not controlled from a data point of view can be a landscape with lumps, bumps and pot-holes. Maybe the sewer was re-laid on time and to budget, but the road has been trashed in the process. Perhaps a new system was shoe-horned in to production, but rendered elements of an Analytical Repository useless in the process.

Excerpted from: Bumps in the Road

A primary responsibility of a properly constituted Data Function is to lean hard against the prevailing winds of Change in order to protect existing data capabilities that would otherwise likely be blown away [2]. Given the gargantuan size of most current Change teams, it makes sense to have at least a reasonable amount of Data Function resource applied to this area. Hopefully early interventions in projects and programmes can mitigate any potentially adverse impacts and perhaps even lead to Change being accretive to data landscapes, as it really ought to be.

The best approach, as with most human endeavours is a collaborative one, with Data Function staff (probably Data Architects) getting involved in new Change projects and programmes at an early stage and shaping them to be positive from a Data dimension. However, there also needs to be teeth in the process; on occasion the Data Function must be able to prevent work that would cause true damage from going ahead; hopefully powers that are used more in breach than observance.

Data Modelling

It is in this area that the practical bent of Data Architects and Data Business Analysts is seen very clearly. Data modelling mirrors the realities of systems and databases the way that Theoretical Physicists use Mathematics to model the Natural World [3]. In both cases, while there may be a degree of abstraction, the end purpose is to achieve something more concrete. A definition is as follows:

[Data Modelling is] the process of examining data sets (e.g. the database underpinning a system) in order to understand how they are structured, the relationships between their various parts and the business entities and transactions they represent. While system data will have a specific Physical Data Model (the tables it contains and their linkages), Data Modelling may instead look to create a higher-level and more abstract set of pseudo-tables, which would be easier to relate to for non-technical staff and would more closely map to business terms and activities; this is known as a Conceptual Data Model. Sitting somewhere between the two may be found Logical Data Models. There are several specific documents produced by such work, one of the most common being an Entity-Relationship diagram, e.g. a sales order has a customer and one or more line items, each of which has a product.

Data and Analytics Dictionary entry: Data Modelling

Data Business Analysis

Another critical role. In my long experience of both setting up Data Functions and running Data Programmes, having good Data Business Analysts on board is often the difference between success and failure. I cannot stress enough how important this role is.

Data Business Analysts are neither regular Business Analysts, nor just Data Analysts, but rather a combination of the best of both. They do have all the requirement gathering skills of the best BAs, but complement these with Data Modelling abilities, always seeking to translate new requirements into expanded or refined Data Models. Also the way that they approach business requirements will be very specific. The optimal way to do this is by teasing out (and they collating and categorising) business questions and then determining the information needed to answer these. A good Data Business Analyst will also have strong Data Analysis skills, being able to work with unfamiliar and lightly-documented datasets to discern meaning and link this to business concepts. A definition is as follows:

A person who has extensive understanding of both business processes and the data necessary to support these. A Business Analyst is expert at discerning what people need to do. A Data Analyst is adept at working with datasets and extracting meaning from them. A Data Business Analyst can work equally happily in both worlds at the same time. When they talk to people about their requirements for information, they are simultaneously updating mental models of the data necessary to meet these needs. When they are considering how lightly-documented datasets hang together, they constantly have in mind the business purpose to which such resources may be bent.

Data and Analytics Dictionary entry: Data Business Analyst

Data Management

Data Management

Again, it is worth noting that I have probably defined this area more narrowly than many. It could be argued that it should encompass the work I have under Data Architecture and maybe much of what is under Data Operations & Technology. The actual hierarchy is likely to be driven by factors like the nature of the organisation and the seniority of Managers in the Data Function. For good or ill, I have focussed Data Management more on the care and feeding of Data Assets in my recommended set-up. A definition is as follows:

The day-to-day management of data within an organisation, which encompasses areas such as Data Architecture, Data Quality, Data Governance (normally on behalf of a Data Governance Committee) and often some elements of data provision and / or regular reporting. The objective is to appropriately manage the lifecycle of data throughout the entire organisation, which both ensures the reliability of data and enables it to become a valuable and strategic asset.

In some organisations, Data Management and Analytics are part of the same organisation, in others they are separate but work closely together to achieve shared objectives.

Data and Analytics Dictionary entry: Data Management

Data Governance

There is a clear link here with some of the Data Architecture activities, particularly the Change Portfolio Engagement work-area. Governance should represent the strategic management of the data component of Change (i.e. most of Change), day-to-day collaboration would sit more in the Data Architecture area.

The management processes and policies necessary to ensure that data captured or generated within a company is of an appropriate standard to use, represents actual business facts and has its integrity preserved when transferred to repositories (e.g. Data Lakes and / or Data Warehouses, General Ledgers etc.), especially when this transfer involves aggregation or merging of different data sets. The activities that Data Governance has oversight of include the operation of and changes to Systems of Record and the activities of Data Management and Analytics departments (which may be merged into one unit, or discrete but with close collaboration).

Data Governance has a strategic role, often involving senior management. Day-to-day tasks supporting Data Governance are often carried out by a Data Management team.

Data and Analytics Dictionary entry: Data Governance

Data Definitions & Metadata

This is a relatively straightforward area to conceptualise. Rigorous and consistent definitions of master data and calculated data are indispensable in all aspects of how a Data Function operates and how an organisation both leverages and protects its data. Focusing on Metadata, a definition would be as follows:

[Metadata is] data about data. So descriptions of what appears in fields, how these relate to other fields and what concepts bigger constructs like Tables embody. This helps people unfamiliar with a dataset to understand how it hangs together and is good practice in the same way that documentation of any other type of code is good practice. Metadata can be used to support some elements of Data Discovery by less technical people. It is also invaluable when there is a need for Data Migration.

Data and Analytics Dictionary entry: Metadata

Data Audit

One of the challenges in driving Data Quality improvements in organisations is actually highlighting the problems and their impacts. Often poor Data Quality is a hidden cost, spread across many people taking longer to do their jobs than is necessary, or specific instances where interactions with business counterparties (including customers) are compromised. Organisations obviously cope – at least in general – with these issues, but they are a drag on efficiency and, in extremis, can lead to incidents which can cause significant financial loss and/or reputational damage. A way to make such problems more explicit is via a regular Data Audit, a review of data in source systems and as it travels through various data repositories. This would include some assessment of the completeness and overall quality of data, highlighting areas of particular concern. So one component might include the percentage of active records which suffer from a significant data quality issue.

It is important that any such issues are categorised. Are they the result of less than perfect data entry procedures, which could be tightened up? Are they due to deficient validation in transactional systems, where this could be improved and there may be a role for Master Data Management? Are data interfaces between systems to blame, where these need to be reengineered or potentially replaced? Are there architectural issues with systems or repositories, which will require remedial work to address?

This information needs to be rolled up and presented in an accessible manner so that those responsible for systems and processes can understand where issues lie. Data Audits, even if partially automated, take time and effort, so it may be appropriate to carry them out quarterly. In this case, it is valuable to understand how the situation is changing over time and also to track the – hopefully positive – impact of any remedial action. Experienced Data Analysts with a good appreciation of how business is conducted in the organisation are the type of resource best suited to Data Audit work.

Data Quality

Much that needs to be said here is covered in the previous section about Data Audit. Data Quality can be defined as follows:

The characteristics of data that cover how accurately and completely it mirrors real world events and thereby how much reliance can be placed on it for the purpose of generating information and insight. Enhancing Data Quality should be a primary objective of Data Management teams.

Data and Analytics Dictionary entry: Data Quality

A Data Quality team, which would work closely with Data Audit colleagues, would be focussed on helping to drive improvements. The details of such work are covered in an earlier article, from which the following is excerpted:

There are a number of elements that combine to improve the quality of data:

  1. Improve how the data is entered
  2. Make sure your interfaces aren’t the problem
  3. Check how the data is entered / interfaced
  4. Don’t suppress bad data in your BI

As with any strategy, it is ideal to have the support of all four pillars. However, I have seen greater and quicker improvements through the fourth element than with any of the others.

Excerpted from: Using BI to drive improvements in data quality

Master Data Management

There is some overlap here with Data Definitions & Metadata as mentioned above. Master Data Management has also been mentioned here in the context of Data Quality initiatives. However this specialist area tends to demand dedicated staff. A definition is as follows:

Master Data Management is the term used to both describe the set of process by which Master Data is created, changed and deleted in an organisation and also the technological tools that can facilitate these processes. There is a strong relation here to Data Governance, an area which also encompasses broader objectives. The aim of MDM is to ensure that the creation of business transactions results in valid data, which can then be leveraged confidently to create Information.

Many of the difficulties in MDM arise from items of Master Data that can change over time; for example when one counterparty is acquired by another, or an organisational structure is changed (maybe creating new departments and consolidating old ones). The challenges here include, how to report historical transactions that are tagged with Master Data that has now changed.

Data and Analytics Dictionary entry: Master Data Management

At this point, we have covered all of the work-areas within our idealised Data Function. In the third and final piece (which is yet to be published), we will consider the right-hand column of Related Areas, ones that a Data Function must collaborate with. Having covered these, the trilogy will close by offering some thoughts on the challenges of setting up a Data Function and how these may be overcome.

Part I Part II Part III


I am old enough to recall a time before Change portfolios, I can recall no organisation in which I have worked over the last 20 years in which Change portfolios have had a positive impact on data assets; maybe I have just been unlucky, but it begins to feel more like a fundamental Physical Law.
I have clearly been writing about hurricanes too much recently!
As is seen, for example in, the Introduction to my [as yet unfinished] book on the role of Group Theory in Theoretical Physics, Glimpses of Symmetry.


From:, home of The Data and Analytics Dictionary


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